Tag: food systems

Cultivating Community Food Resilience: Revisited

In Fall 2018, undergraduate and graduate students of Dr. Angie Carter’s Communities and Research class at Michigan Tech University (MTU) researched and wrote a report on the food system in the Western UP and food systems councils. The report, entitled “Cultivating Community Food Resilience” was the product  of a partnership between MTU and the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region, and was intended to inform the development of the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council (WUPFSC) through research and community engagement. It is hard to believe that more than a year has passed since we finished drafting the report, and that more than a year’s worth of WUPFSC meetings in all 6 counties of the Western Upper Peninsula region have since taken place.

We were both students in the class and came back together to reflect on the past year, the research and writing process, and sharing the report.

Question: Describe your process of preparing the report. What was the most impactful for you personally, for the class, for the community?

Kyla: I found the process of researching for this report immensely impactful, specifically connecting with community partners. The amount of support and enthusiasm we found when we started speaking to people about this project was really contagious and I think many of us found the sense of community very affecting. Especially after having graduated and left Houghton, this aspect of the project still impresses me.

I recall experiencing a lot of growth as a member of the class, too. The gains were far more than just intellectual — I think I have become a better community member through the process of pulling together to make this report happen. Coming into conversation with the community was the easy part of this project. The difficult part, the part that required all of us to stretch beyond our comfort zones, was the collaborative, messy work of birthing the report. I’m sure there will be many more experiences like this for folks continuing this work!

For the campus — I’m sure I’ll touch on this more when I talk about presenting to the Food Systems and Sustainability (FS&S) class. All of the MTU students I’ve met and talked to about this project and other community food systems topics have had such thoughtful, hopeful responses. I think that this report can serve as a little bit of a touchstone, a synthesis of much of the work that the first round of FS&S and Communities and Research students have done. Every time I look at the report, I am struck by all the elements that made their way in — from the literature we were exposed to during the first round of FS&S, to the problems, ideas, solutions and values that our partners and community brought to the table. So future students will find a lot of information and ideas, and they’ll have a snapshot of food resilience/security at MTU at a time before any of this work, or their work, was carried out. And they’ll hopefully see themselves in the vision of the students who came before them.

Courtney: The research for this project was interesting and impactful to me in a variety of ways. Not only educationally, but as a community member as well. It was really nice to interact with the students on campus and community members as a whole.  I know that personally, all the people I came in contact with during this project were enthusiastic about the project and interested in what we were doing. It was in a sense, a feel-good process.

As a student, I grew immensely during this project; both as an individual and as a team member. We learned how each other worked, what our strengths and weaknesses were and where to improve. Presenting at the Social Science Brown Bag Lunch and the Western UP Food Systems Council Meeting at Zeba Hall in L’Anse, MI in December 2018 helped with my presentation skills which is huge both educationally and professionally. Attending the Western UP Food Systems Council meetings has given me the opportunity to connect with community members through the area, and learn about who they are through networking, sharing and brainstorming.

I believe this project helped our campus and community in a very unique way. Everyone loves food. Having conversations about food, how it is grown, the problems we encounter and how we can solve those problems. For the people who participated, they were able to express how food affects their life, whether positive or not. When starting this project, I was amazed at the number of people who are food insecure in our local area. No one should be without good food. It is my hope that doing the research and helping start the Western UP Food Systems Council, that we might be able to conquer some of the problems in our area.

Question: You’ve shared the report in a couple different forums, including WUPFSC meetings, classes and an academic conference. How can this report be used differently by different audiences?

Text Box: Photo 1 Kyla Valenti presenting at the International Symposium of Society & Natural Resources conference


Photo 1 Kyla Valenti presenting at the International Symposium of Society & Natural Resources conference


Photo 2 (L to R) Class team Jack Wilson, Kyla Valenti, Adewale Adesanya, Courtney Archambeau, Kyle Parker-McGlynn, Angie Carter (not pictured Rob Skalitsky) after presenting at the WUPFSC meeting December 2018

Kyla: Yes, come to think of it, those presentations all differed quite a lot. During the final week of the semester in the Fall of 2018, we shared our newly minted findings and research process at the second Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council meeting. During the spring, a couple of us came to Dr. Carter’s Food Systems and Sustainability class to talk about the project, findings and methods and to exchange thoughts and inspiration with other students concerned and passionate about community food systems. More recently, this work was presented at the International Symposium of Society and Natural Resources (ISSNR) in June, 2019.

After having either seen or participated in all of these presentations, I can confidently say that there are many different ways this report can be used and shared. It seems like each presentation, meeting and conversation has led in different directions and evolved the project further. For academic audiences, the conversation may have more to do with research methodology or may focus more on the theory informing this work — more generalizable information that could be applied to a wide array of projects in any number of communities and places. But with members of our own community, the conversation tends to be very different — it easily verges more toward concrete ideas and steps, acknowledges real people, local cultures, and tangible resources and connections. When we presented to other students, I recall experiencing a moment where I realized I’d need to shift from one gear into the other — from the academic gear, into one that was much more specific and personal. The Michigan Tech students I’ve spoken to and worked with have a strong connection to place and deep concern for their community, their school, and their impact.

Courtney: Sharing our research has probably been the best part of the project, next to all of the interactions of course. Sharing what we have learned on different levels was thought provoking and inspiring. The research and methodologies have been shared with students, faculty, and community members; each having their own sets of questions. When sharing with Dr. Carter’s Food Systems and Sustainability Class, their main focus was how we conducted our research and what we thought of our findings.

I think that “Cultivating Community Food Resilience” can be used in a variety of ways and be helpful to different types of groups. As I stated earlier, we have presented our work in a multitude of ways to a multitude of groups, and Kyla stated that each presentation, conversation and read-through has lead to different conversations and impacts.

Question: What are some of the next steps for the WUPFSC?

Courtney: One of the main things that needs to keep happening is the WUPFSC meetings in each of the six counties across the Western UP region. Food summits and community programs would also be beneficial so that community members know what is happening and or how to process foods in a variety of ways.

Kyla: What were once “recommendations” are now actualities. Ideas that once belonged to the future are now accomplishments. An example of this is that when we met with community partners last year, one of the key things that folks kept bringing up was that creating partnerships within the community was critical to supporting a strong local food system. “Building partnerships” ended up becoming one of our key themes, so several recommendations for the WUPFSC were built around that. And I have to say, checking back in with the WUPFSC, I am so impressed by just how far they’ve taken those initial recommendations. When I looked at the website after several months, I was amazed by all the resources compiled for that particular purpose: building partnerships. A “networking” page. Lists of community gardens. Funding opportunities. A calendar of local events. This is one area where even from a distance I can tell that the WUPFSC has done a tremendous job. And like many of those who participated in our project, I am optimistic that many of the “next steps” will grow from those partnerships!

—-

Kyla Valenti is a 2019 graduate of the B.S. in Social Sciences (Law and Society) program at Michigan Technological University. Though deeply attached to the UP, she currently resides in Silicon Valley, where she is working to advance her career as a social scientist and mental health practitioner.

Courtney Archambeau is a 2006 graduate of the B.S in Social Sciences (History concentration) program at Michigan Technological University. She is currently a full time employee of Residence Education and Housing Services at Michigan Technological University while pursuing her masters degree in Environmental and Energy Policy.

The students’ report, and other resources about food in our communities, can be found at the Western Upper Peninsula Food Systems Council website.


Giving farmers a new crop: Solar Farms and expanding BTM methods for farmers

 

This is a guest post from Lena Stenvig, an undergraduate student at Michigan Tech. Lena is studying Computer Science and minoring in Environmental Studies. Lena took the photos included in this blog post. She can be reached at lsstenvi@mtu.edu

 

The cherry orchard at Garthe Farms LLC

America is all about its family-owned farms. From its popular food chains serving America-grown burgers to its corn-mazes in the fall attracting people from all around, none of it would be possible without the original small-town humble farmers that do their job equally for supporting their families and for the love of what they do every day; but now our farmers need help. When people moved away from their family farms over to less body-intensive jobs for work, fewer farms began producing more product on more land. Even so, many farmers struggle to produce enough crop to sustain themselves and their family. Around 91 percent of farming families have at least one family member working at a job that is not the farm. This is where Behind the Meter, or BTM comes in.

Behind the meter is a means of producing your own energy so that you are not pulling all of the energy you use from the grid, and as a result pay less for your electricity bill. A popular technique to behind-the-meter is installing solar-panels in one’s yard on upon the roof. In this way a household can produce green energy to lower its carbon footprint and can save on the electricity bill. A typical household has room for a few solar panels. Enough to sustain itself for most of the summer months, but usually not enough when the winter heating bill kicks in. A modern American farm has much more land than your typical resident. Even if most of it is used for farming, there are certainly space that could easily be allocated for a small solar farm. Having worked for Garthe Farms LLC this summer, a cherry farm deep in cherry country near Traverse City, MI, I have seen first-hand where and how this can work. My uncle, Gene Garthe, runs this farm and in recent years invested in four large solar panels that sit in empty space near the driveway nearing the farm house. These four solar panels produce enough energy to run what electricity is needed for the farm, and that is all they desire and need.

Despite producing plenty of energy via solar, Garthe Farms is not a emissions-free facility. Large machinery is used to harvest the cherries from their trees. There are three machines that are necessary in cherry harvesting: the Shaker, which shakes the cherries from the trees, the Catch Frame, which catches the cherries shaken by the Shaker and conveyors them into a tub, and the tractor that takes the tubs when full to the loading dock and brings the Catch Frame a new tub in which to fill more cherries. All three of these machines require diesel fuel to run, and as much work as one can complete towards electric vehicles, it is not economically feasible at the moment to make a machine that chugs through an entire tank of fuel in eight hours of work to operate on an electrically-rechargeable battery. To make up for their fuel usage, perhaps it is better that farms simply produce a form of green energy that can make up for the amount of fossil fuels they consume.

 

Cherry harvest in motion: The Shaker (far) moves to the next tree while the Catch Frame (near) is receiving a new tub in which to place the harvested cherries.

 

In this way farmers can reverse the BTM method. If they can produce their usual crop while also producing energy in either the form of solar or wind, they can sustain their household while also receiving return on what they put out to the grid. This can work if they can have some of their own personal solar panels to run what they need to on the farm, and then working with solar or wind companies to lease certain areas of their land to be utilized for said energy production. For wind, this is easy by simply taking up a small portion of land for each windmill. The minimally invasive turbines do not take up much room on the farm and do not hinder the crops from receiving enough sunlight. Solar panels can prove to be trickier. Because of their method of energy production, solar panels would not work well in a field full of crops that also require sunlight in order to grow. For farms that grow plants that take up less room per unit such as potatoes or corn, placing solar panels in spare spaces around the field while mostly utilizing wind power might be the best option. For farms like my uncle’s, it is a different story entirely.

Much of a cherry orchard’s area is taken up by plants and grasses that grow below the trees, and the trees stand spaced approximately ten feet apart within each row. Each row stands about another twenty five feet apart. Where some farms may be only able to place solar panels near roads or at the end of rows, orchards may place the panels in these locations are more. If one row of trees were to be replaced with solar panels, the loss of trees would be fairly minimal while also adding enormous potential for solar production. Even without removing trees, placing solar panels at the end of rows would not affect the production of fruit while also receiving gain on solar production.

If we are to look closer at our American farms and examine the issues they face today, and if we can only look at the potential they hold for energy production, we may not only be able to solve the growing problem of farms going bankrupt, but also for finding a place to produce greener energy without disrupting land that is not being used and additionally would ecologically be better off as it is. In this way farmers can continue to do what they love, and not have to work more than they have to in order to pay bills and keep their farm from dying. With this I might say the path onto greener pastures might just be creating greener pastures.

 

 


National Climate Assessment rolling out now

Ignore the beautiful but dysfunctional interactive website, and instead go straight to downloading the highlights  or the full report. The documents are a treasure trove of data, documenting all of the changes in our climate that we have already witnessed and what is likely to come. The report offers data and projections by region, sector, and response strategies.


Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.


Food in the UP neighborhood

And finally a foodie post from my current haunts…. the UP Food Exchange website is up and running! Make it your first stop for information on local food news, farmers and markets, as well as an online market to increase agricultural connectivity across the three UP regions (Western, Central, and Eastern).


More urban farming news from my old haunts

This time it’s news from Cincinnati that one of the oldest community gardens in Over the Rhine would have been bulldozed for housing development. The “Eco-Garden” is a lovely garden that I used to walk by frequently on my way to downtown from Clifton, so it is very good news indeed that it has not only been spared, but incorporated into the city’s redevelopment plans for Over the Rhine.

While Over the Rhine is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cincinnati, it has deep cultural roots that include food and urban ag. I spent most of my Saturday mornings at the historic Findlay Market, which was open year-round thanks to a major improvement about 8 years ago to enclose the main stalls in a four-seasons building. Before that project, Findlay Market definitely required a bit of stoicism for winter shopping, but it separated the committed from the fair-season shoppers.

Farmers Markets are quickly returning to cities around the country, after decades of lagging interest. It is quite an impressive achievement for Findlay Market to have withstood the test of time. And now it appears, happily, that the Eco-Garden will too.


Chicago’s new Urban Farmer program

Grist.org published a segment last week on Chicago’s new urban farmer program, aiming to train up to 100 farmers each year on how to establish an urban neighborhood farm, both from the agricultural as well as the business side.

Many contracting or otherwise struggling urban cities in the US are looking to agriculture as a solution for vacant lots and unhealthy diets, from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Los Angeles. (You know it’s a trend when the New York Times has an entire online section dedicated to it.) Farming (or even gardening) on a vacant lot can be challenging, from polluted soil to poor drainage to pest infestations, not to mention ordinance violations. But as experience with these transformations grow, lessons learned from converting many thousands of acres of brownfields into greenfields could help localize our food system and provide much needed urban employment. It’s also a great way to immerse children in the food system, allowing easier access to gardens (to participate in growing their own food) and a natural way to get to know others in their community.

Personally, I’m glad to see the change of heart in my native city; let’s see if the suburbs follow suit and relax their landscaping ordinances that prohibit gardens in front yards.


The Value of Local Food presentation, Feb 14 6:30-8pm

From Prof. Susan Martin:

“Ken Meter will present a program on Thurs Feb 14 from 6:30-8 in MEEM 112  “The Value of Local Food: How Local Food Systems are Revitalizing Economies and Communities.”   Mr. Meter is an economist and national expert on the economic impact of local food production, and he is the president of the Crossroads Resource Center. His presentation is free and open to the public.

If you are interested in the linked topics of environmental impacts of global food systems, the impoverishment of local producers, and wider issues of healthy diets and enhancing local food security, there’ll be something for you in this presentation.”


Hands-on Learning

I just came across an interesting post in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Scott Carlson regarding the need/desire for college students to learn life skills and trades in addition to more abstract or technical knowledge. A few colleges are already requiring their students to learn wood-working, machining, farming, and other skills, and from this article (and my own experience) it seems that students might really need to learn the basics as well (cooking and cleaning).

I would whole-heartedly agree with this shift. Back when I used to teach a first year Perspectives class (“Developing a Sustainability Mindset”), one of the assignments required the students to organize a potluck with their friends, and write about where the food came from (that is, what country or region, to estimate food miles), where the recipe originated, and the story behind the choices of dishes that the students made. In many cases, the lack of cooking knowledge overwhelmed the assignment, as many students were steaming rice or cooking pasta for the first time. That was certainly a shock to me, and represents a pretty profound shift in just one generation in American culture. I don’t remember a single friend of mine in college (male or female) who couldn’t master at least the “boil only” foods, and pop popcorn and cook cookies as well.

Many of the “Transition Town” and other relocalization movements rely on a wealth of DIY knowledge in their communities, but this assumption may need to be checked. If younger citizens do not know how to establish a garden or produce staples like clothing and cookware (not to mention build and maintain equipment), the transition to more localized production systems and economies might be made significantly more difficult.

Clearly we all have some educating to do!